Are We Shaming Teens for Having Sexual Feelings?

by | May 24, 2023 | Parenting Teens | 21 comments

What's the difference between lust and sexual feelings?
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When you’re a teen, it’s normal to have sexual feelings.

In fact, sexual feelings are a normal part of life for adults too! We have sex dreams (the content of which can sometimes be quite alarming). We can feel attraction to people. We can feel “horny”, for lack of a better word (and the word just refers to erections–which used to be called “horns.”). 

We can have an intense desire to have sex. We can be sexually curious.

And these are all extremely, extremely normal. In fact, many are hormonal. 

As you grow up, one of the things people are expected to do is to be able to control this. So if you’re in a business meeting, you can “turn it off.” If you start thinking too much about someone you find attractive, you can say, “not for me.” It doesn’t have to consume you. 

When I talk about getting rid of lust, I’m not talking about getting rid of sexual feelings.

Lust is objectification. Lust is using someone for your own sexual gratification, whether it’s in your imagination, or even acting it out when you’re with them, with no thought of their own well-being. 

Lust is seeing someone as existing primarily for you to use in some way. 

Lust, not sexual feelings, are the real problem. Lust ignores the imago Dei (the image of God) in someone, and sees them as merely body parts. 

And whether you are actively imagining someone naked, or “bouncing your eyes” away from a person and refusing to look at them, you are still seeing them as only a collection of body parts. Often our solution to lust just continues the objectification.

I think the real problem is lust. 

Jesus got upset when a man looked with lust on a woman–because he wasn’t seeing her as a person. He was reducing her to something that he could use. 

Jesus deliberately did the opposite in his interactions with women. He sat and talked with women alone, even though that was scandalous, showing that he rejected the idea that men and women could only see each other in terms of a sexual relationship.

He talked with women about what they were thinking and feeling, showing that He valued them for who they were. He refused to see women as merely people who could do something for Him, as the culture often did, but instead engaged with them as people, encouraging them to study and learn from Him rather than just make Him His meal.

Keeping that idea that lust and having sexual feelings are not one and the same, let’s look at what we want teens to experience.

How should teens mature with sexual feelings?

How teens should mature sexually

  1. They have (often unwanted) sexual feelings and desires at inopportune times.
  2. They start to notice that peers are attractive, and can fixate on body parts.
  3. They learn to say, “Not for me!” and get their minds on something else.
  4. They learn that when sexual feelings come, they can focus on something else so that it doesn’t overtake them.
  5. They learn to have healthy relationships where they value each other as friends with their own wants, needs, and opinions, rather than merely potential sexual partners.
  6. They learn that even if they find someone attractive, they can treat them as a whole person regardless. 
  7. They learn that not everyone they find attractive will reciprocate, and it’s important to treat people with respect regardless.

So the sexual feelings are there, but they learn that other things are more important–friendship, treating people with respect, respecting yourself. And sex doesn’t have to take over your life or be the main thing in your life. The feelings are normal and fine, but they shouldn’t be focused on a particular person, because that isn’t respectful. And as we mature, we want to put sex in its proper place.

How can that trajectory be hijacked?

So what we’re trying to teach teens is that sexual feelings don’t need to control them, and that they need to respect others.

What if, though, we start teaching them that it’s normal to be overwhelmed with lust for someone’s body? So much so that we’re going to give girls radical dress codes because we know you can’t handle cleavage?

What if we spend a large proportion of our spiritual development time with boys especially lecturing them on how bad porn is and how they’re all going to be overcome with lust if they’re not careful?

What if we start describing how noticing a girl’s chest will quickly result in lust, and so you have to try hard to bounce your eyes?

Will they be able to learn that this doesn’t have to control them? Or will they take on hypervigilance?

What if our messages about lust are actually preventing sexual maturity?

There’s one central message missing in the way that we often talk about lust in church, and that’s the idea of respecting people as whole people. We talked about this last week in our review of Every Young Man’s Battle and our podcast on Every Young Man’s Battle, but when the entire focus is to stop thinking about sex rather than to start thinking of the opposite sex as whole people, we’re actually solidifying objectification. 

And when we hyperfocus on not thinking about sex, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to think about sex a whole lot more.

That’s what this study on religious youth trying to suppress sexual thoughts found:

The analyses indicated that religious adolescents are higher in CSB [compulsive sexual behavior] than secular ones, and that sexual suppression and CSB mediate the link between religiosity and well-being.

Yanev Efrati

God, I Can’t Stop Thinking About Sex! The Rebound Effect in Unsuccessful Suppression of Sexual Thoughts Among Religious Adolescents, Journal of Sex Research

What if many evangelical men are stuck in adolescent sexuality?

They never learned how to stop focusing on their sexual thoughts and feelings, because they were told they had to be hypervigilant. And at the same time, they never learned to stop objectifying, but instead were taught this was part of godly manhood and masculine sexuality.

So instead of fighting against objectification, they leaned into it, even if inadvertently, because they thought this was who they were created to be.

It makes sense–sexual feelings can be overwhelming when you’re 13-15. And if you’re in an environment that tells you that God made males to lust after the female form, then it can feel like a losing battle. You don’t learn how to say, “not for me,” and move on. You learn to be angry at her for being so pretty and “advertising” herself in front of you.

What if many evangelicals, both men and women, feel sexual shame they shouldn’t?

By teaching that sexual feelings were the problem, rather than objectification being the problem, we can make people feel guilty for that which is normal.

And instead of teaching them, “yeah, this is normal, but you can learn to put it in its proper place,” we taught, “you’re bad for having those feelings because those feelings are always sin.” It’s like Rebecca said in last week’s weekly email to our 46,000 subscribers (you can sign up here!):

I think that as uncomfortable as it can be to accept, we have to recognize that sexual thoughts are actually a developmentally appropriate stage for kids to go through. My concern is that when we label it automatically as “lust” when it’s not tied to any individual but is just about sex in general and is not with ill intent, but is just a kid trying to sort out their raging hormones and get through puberty, we run the risk of pathologizing something that would have become a non-issue with time.

Rebecca Lindenbach

Friday Email May 19

My hope is that we can separate the idea of lust from the idea of sexual feelings.

I think that would make us all healthier.

But I think there’s more to discuss here. How can we differentiate between general sexual desire and hypersensitivity to sexual stimuli, and actual objectification? I don’t want us creating more rules that cause shame, but I think the aim should be to help young people grow up to respect others and themselves, and not to be slaves to their feelings.

So how can we do that? I’d love to talk in the comments!

Confusing Sexual Feelings with Lust

What do you think? Are we focusing on the wrong thing? What’s the difference between lust and sexual feelings? Let’s talk!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Sequoia

    Ad a young and bisexual married woman, I find that I have to go through that process often. There’s people (male mostly, but female sometimes too) that I find attractive almost everywhere, and I have to tell my brain “thanks for noticing, yes they are pretty, and no not for me.” Sometimes it takes more focus than other times, but this is just the process. Especially if that person is a minor, I try to “drop” them out of my brain immediately. I have to protect my view of them as children, not just protect myself and my marriage. **Those people I find attractive are not threats—they are important persons that just aren’t for me.** The fact that my husband is amazing is helpful, but doesn’t make me stop noticing others. I still have to choose to not focus on them. I assume it works similarly for guys/others? That their spouse is they have one doesnt instantly make them stop noticing others. This is a skill we all have to develop.

    • Sequoia

      *their spouse, if they have one,

    • Lisa Johns

      I think your response is really healthy. We can’t always help what comes to mind, but we *can* decide whether we dwell on it!

  2. Phil

    My thoughts are more along the lines of talking openly about sex in appropriate ways just like you would say with money for example. I am sure we have not done things perfectly. And for my younger 2 we are still in process…but sex is an open topic at my house just like money. There are appropriate ways and times to talk about money just like there are for sex. While its not an exact example there are similarities. Talking about money is normal. Talking about sex should be too. I wont go into details how those conversations go for us because that is an individual choice for each family. As for an example of that- For us when we are in Public stuff happens and people do and say stuff that we need to address. Each case is different. This past Feb for example we walked past a homeless guy and our family was talking about a business name we walked by as a place to come back too. The homeless man made a comment to us regarding the business name turning it into an inappropriate sexual innuendo. I looked the man square in the face and said “common man I got kids here”. He apologized but I wasnt done. I went back a little later and had a conversation with him and I thanked him for apologizing out of respect for my kids. Then I gave him a dollar to re-enforce my message. My kids were aware of the entire thing. However, sometimes stuff happens and we join the joke. Or we make our own joke. “Normalizing” sex just like well the fart joke right? Everyone does it and there are appropriate times and places to 1. Do it 2. Laugh at it. 3 possibly talk about it as an learning curve/issue/problem. Well – I think I have expressed my concept here…thats how we handle it anyway.

  3. Codec

    I feel that I have at once made a lot of progress in this field and that I still have much to learn.

    I think for a lot of people growing up sexual feelings become a way to harness a lot of emotional baggage. For instance rather than say getting into a fight with somebody you really do not like because they make you feel small you can channel that feeling of wanting to be seen and admired into sexual fantasy. It is not healthy, but I understand looking back why I did a lot of the stuff that I did.

    Other times I think people use porn to try to deal with their own feelings of loneliness. There could be a voice in your head that says “Why would anyone want to get to know you, you don’t like you.” For a short moment a rush of hormones can make you feel really good only you then realize that what you did is gross and now you continue to feel gross and the cycle goes on.

    I feel like I can be honest here. It feels nice.

    • Lisa Johns

      I think you have some really good insight. Blessings on your journey as you continue to become more and more healthy.

  4. recoverymode

    Having a correct understanding of this distinction is absolutely crucial. Having this type of correct teaching/guidance would have saved me from years of difficulties and challenges. For a long time I equated noticing to lust (due to books like Every Man’s Battle, etc.), and that caused all sorts of problems for me, since that then makes you feel like you’ve already failed, which then leads you believe you are spiritually weak — and then further chaos ensues. This distinction and training of the mind is so crucial and has been an absolute game changer for me. Sure, I will still notice beauty around me, but it can now stay there and not develop into lust — just go on about the day, and see the individual as a whole person (wonder what they would be like, would their character match their external appearance, etc.). So thankful for this mindset shift, largely enabled by Sheila’s work, and some of her regularly recommended authors such as Andrew Bauman and others. Definitely will be utilizing this knowledge with my own children so they don’t have to deal with warped strategies that don’t work and harm their sexuality.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad!

  5. Cynthia

    Thanks for linking that study. I’m going to read up on his other work.

    One general parenting tip I found really helpful was to focus far more on what my kids should DO rather than telling them DON’T. Sexual stuff is no different. They have new feelings and changing bodies. What do they do now? My suggestion would be to tell them that:
    1. They have privacy to explore their own thoughts, feelings and bodies behind closed doors. We are available for any questions or for discussion, we make sure they have access to other resources (I made it clear to my kids that they could have a private discussion with a doctor), but they have their own space. That lets them know where stuff is appropriate (ie in private and alone). They can also learn that it is okay to process your own thoughts and feelings, and to have control of your own body. That is an important life skill. They see respect for boundaries being modeled, so that they will learn how to respect someone else’s boundaries. Also, I really don’t want to get intrusive or weird with my kids.
    2. ALL people need to be treated with respect for their human dignity. Period. Regardless of gender, wealth, race, religion, nationality, appearance, etc. As part of that overall message, which really needs to be an overall message that parents are constantly teaching and modelling throughout their kids’ lives, people need to be treated as whole people regardless of whether or not someone finds them sexually attractive.
    3. While they are this young, sex is just for them behind closed doors. They can learn that sexual activity with another person will happen when they are older, and that it will need to be safe, consensual and respectful of the other person each and every time. (In other words – instead of talking about virginity and what is done to a girl once, talk about what people of any gender do all the time.)

    I also saw briefly in some other papers from Yaniv Efrati that adolescent compulsive sexual behavior rates increased if there was early childhood trauma, or exposure to family violence, or attachment disorders. So, basic good parenting and modeling healthy relationships is important. Having good support and good communication with parents was also a protective factor that lowered the risk. Kids need to know what healthy looks like, and they also need good coping skills in general.

  6. Nathan

    Cynthia, that’s a pretty good list. I would expand item 2 to fully explain that you can see somebody as whole person, as a child of God, as a brother/sister in Christ and still be sexually attracted to them. Those are NOT mutually exclusive.

    I may be reading too much into this, but apart from Cynthia’s proactive post, this page still mostly seems to have an undercurrent of believing that sexual thoughts are bad. We’re a step up from some evangelicals who will tell us that not only are sexual thoughts wrong, but just having them in the first place makes you a bad person. This page seems to say that sexual thoughts are a normal part of being human (and that the thoughts themselves should cause no shame), but that we should suppress them and keep them under wraps, move on to something else immediately, get them out of our mind, and pretend they don’t exist. Like I said, though, maybe I’m overreacting. Overall, this site has a far more healthier attitude towards sex and sexuality that nearly the entire evangelical source of books, videos, etc.

    • Cynthia

      Sexual feelings aren’t something separate from the rest of the person. So yes, of course you can be attracted to someone in all aspects, sexual and everything else. We shouldn’t have this split, thinking that there are women who you may be attracted to and women you may respect, but they can’t be the same.

      I guess the flip side is that if the feeling is not reciprocated or wouldn’t be appropriate (too young, power imbalance, already in a relationship, etc.), part of maturing is learning to get over it. You might be attracted, but you can respect that they don’t feel the same way or that it would be a real violation to pursue anything, and at that point the “not for me!” comes in and you move on. It’s like a little kid who learns that they may really want a cookie, but they don’t get to take one that another kid is holding. Being hungry and liking cookies is totally normal. Taking something that isn’t yours is not.

    • Greg

      I agree, Nathan. There is so much good stuff here, but it does still seem like it’s not quite getting out of fundamentally sex-negative messaging. The example given is that if a person not in a relationship has a sexual thought about someone then it is deemed inappropriate and needs to be shut down (“not for me”). It’s hard to imagine how this doesn’t leave the person feeling like something ‘wrong’ has happened – that their sexual thought/feeling was wrong – that they were wrong for having it. We can say it’s ‘good’ all we want but if we then say it needs to be shut down and something else focused on, that’s a message that it is wrong and that message will win out every time because it’s one we’re feeling internally, not just hearing.

      #4 in the list of ‘how teens should respond’ also left me uncomfortable. There is still this sentiment that young sexuality is dangerous (will overpower them). It’s powerful, yes. Volatile? Sure, especially if they haven’t had exposure to what healthy sexuality looks like. But the only danger is in misuse of it – not lack of use, mind you – but misuse. The focus should be on cultivating healthy applications that are in keeping with Love. Cultivating the Truth is the only way that lies can ever be overcome. Cultivating light is what eradicates darkness. Cultivating healthy sexuality is the same.

    • Greg

      Really surprised and disappointed to of had my comments censored by moderators. I don’t think I was saying anything inappropriate or disrespectful. I think the most important thing we do for one another in this life is to testify to the truth as we perceive it, and in so doing, help one another in the pursuit of unraveling damaging messages and moving into the truth that sets us free.

      If there was an element of my messages that were problematic (such as referring to another author’s work) I’d be happy to amend and resubmit.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Greg, it was a long weekend and I wasn’t at the computer, and the first time you comment you’re automatically on moderation until I’m able to let it through. I try my best, but I need time off too away from the computer sometimes!

  7. Perfect Number

    I really like how your point isn’t to completely get rid of having sexual feelings for random people, but to focus on respecting someone as a person, regardless of whether you’re attracted to them. I don’t know if I’ve seen it explained that way before.

    Also I like how this post says “we can feel attraction to people”/”We can have an intense desire to have sex. We can be sexually curious.” instead of “everyone has sexual feelings.” As an asexual I appreciate that 🙂

  8. Andrew

    Great post! I think it would be great to expand more on how one approaches seeing women (and men) more holistically. Especially for those whose mindsets have been deeply shaped by purity culture, poor teaching and books like Every Man’s Battle. A great topic to include if you ever write an equivalent of “She Deserves Better” for guys.

    • Cynthia

      Be open to listening to women and learning about their lives.

      Everybody has a life story. The more you learn about someone’s story, the more you see them as a whole person and not just a few characteristics or stereotypes.

  9. Claudia

    I’m thankful that more this mischaracterization of lust is getting more attention. However I do have some disagreements i believe can still cause harm to teens.

    For example, I believe believe lust is the desire to covet something that isn’t yours. Jesus was talking about coveting a wife, not about sexual attraction. It’s not about thinking sexual thoughts about people – how else would people get married without fantasizing about each other?

    It’s not helpful at all to tell teens to simply bounce their eyes, or think about something else. They’re raging with hormones and very horny, and it’s not healthy to suppress natural biology. There’s no sin here, so why should we suppress it?

    Having sexual thoughts about someone doesn’t mean mean we view them as less human/objectify them. Song of Songs mentions body parts a lot, and I don’t think that attraction to a body part is objectification; it’s natural. Everyone undresses the lovers in that book and teens fantasize when they read it. We’re not lusting or objectifying them, are we?

    The same goes for other innocent and perfectly normal acts like masturbation. It’s very distressing for a lot if teens to feel they’re abnormal because they masturbate ir have a high sex drive, not to mention being told it’s a sin.

    Respectfully, Claudia

  10. Greg

    I agree that our culture has a massive problem with objectification, and that lust is the end result. I have come to the conviction that our obsession with concealing the body (particular parts especially) is the precise mechanism through which we objectify them. Breasts are covered and only uncovered for sexual purposes (God bless the mothers not willing to sacrifice their baby’s well being by refusing to bring out the ‘sex objects’ to nourish their baby). This is very powerful messaging that establishes breasts as sexual objects despite the fact that they have no more to do with sex than wrists. It is completely manufactured by culture. And the end result is that breasts are separated from the women who bear them.

    Regular and varied exposure to non-sexual nudity as children develop is the obvious solution. Bonnie Rough touches on this in her book Beyond Birds & Bees, comparing Dutch culture vs American. When children are young, they have a natural ability to see the person. If they see the breasts then they’ll see them as part of the person and the power of objectification is thwarted before it can even take root. Also, when you conceal something you bring out the natural curiosity about what is being concealed and why. Porn is quite literally the only place to turn and so we allow the natural/good curiosity of an innocent child to be used to drive them into pornography. Heaven help us.

    The unfortunate truth is that most people are way, WAY too uncomfortable with their own nudity and the nudity of others to do what needs to be done to turn the tide and undo the curse that is objectification/lust/porn. We are (culturally) perpetuating the curse.

  11. Taylor

    One of the aspects that I love about this is that it opens up and empowers doable action. The hyper focus on crushing sexual feelings and thoughts often turns into an unwinnable internal battle. But focusing on respecting people as whole individuals both empowers positive healthy interactions, and depowers fear and objectification.


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